Lessons from the front line
Peace campaigner and retired headmaster John Watson tells Natalie Irvine how he ended up teaching H-block inmates
'Life has not been boring,” begins retired Belfast teacher John Watson. Five minutes into this interview, I realise that ‘Mr Watson' as he was known to many a schoolchild in Belfast, has just made the understatement of the century.
From running a high school behind burning barricades during the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands, to teaching LVF prisoners the Irish language, life for him has certainly been more dicey than dull.
As John casually plods through the back catalogue of his teaching career, I am unsurprised to learn that some of his experiences have even sent shivers down the spines of stalwart prison officers in the Maze.
John says he always knew he was going to be a teacher. Born into a family of eight, he grew up in the Springfield Road area of the city. The area went on to become a flashpoint during the Troubles while John moved to the fore in championing the return to a peaceful society in Northern |Ireland.
Adversity has never hindered John. Before he took an active role in teaching some of the most hardened criminals known to these shores, he was principal of St Colman’s High School, a Catholic school in the Twinbrook area of the city.
He recalls: “It was 1974, and I had just returned from Donegal on a family holiday — the day before the high school was due to open. I will never forget driving over to the school site on the Sunday and,when I arrived, all I could see was a river and green bushes — nothing was built. The next day we had 70 children, seven teachers and nothing but green grass.
“We found a local parochial hall and they were kind enough to let us use it. It had rickety chairs, which we were thankful for, and we set up classes in each corner. There were supposed to be portacabins for us to start the year, as a new school in the area was needed but we had nothing when we started, no books or anything. It wasn't until the next week that builders moved in with their excavators to start to build the school.
“Over five years, as the number of children increased, the number of mobiles increased. When we had our first inspection, we were told that we had encountered more problems in the first five years that most schools saw in a lifetime.”
He muses: “We had different times during the Troubles. It was quite scary during the hunger strike as that's where Bobby Sands had lived. The area was cut off from the outside world for a whole month with burning barricades.”
As a result of his position, John became quite a prominent member in the Catholic community. He was not shy when it came to using his position to forward the cause of peace — a decision that sometimes brought danger very close to home.
“I have always felt that everybody had a responsibility to do something about the violence and not just stand by and accept it,” he says.
“Both my wife and I have been involved in peace and reconciliation work for many years. My wife is an executive on the peace movement. Back in the 1980s we went on peace rallies. One of the first ones was down the Shankhill Road. We were at the front, our young boys were in the buggy — we very were nervous. We were Catholics, walking down the Shankill Road, calling for peace. But we were embraced and made to feel welcome by the people there. It was an experience.
“It was a different kettle of fish when we walked down the Falls. When we were going through Northumberland Street to make our way to the rally, we were threatened by paramilitaries and told to never set a foot in the Falls again. So we had to change our plans.
“In a bid to make it safer and try to put off any kind of attack, we put the Protestants attending the rally in the middle of the peace parade so they were surrounded by Catholics. But we were attacked anyway. We still managed to get people together and hold the peace rally in Musgrave Park.
“When my wife and I talked about it later, we realised it was dicey. It took me a while to go on the Falls Road again after that. If you weren't supporting them you were against them, I think that’s how those who attacked us saw it.”
In 1990, John retired from St Colman's. He learned to paint watercolours, languages, and spent more time on his passions — mountaineering and outdoor pursuits. He had already helped found the annual Third World Run in Ormeau Park, inspired by Bob Geldof’s Run the World event.
In the ensuing 24 years, the run has raised over £120,000 for Christian Aid, Concern, Oxfam and Trocaire.
He became a volunteer with the charity Concern Worldwide and has worked with Pax Christi, helping to organise an international peace conference. But it wasn’t too long before John was teaching again, first in Maghaberry prison, then the Maze.
As John chats, the dangers he faced in teaching prisoners becomes apparent. Security windows had been painted black by the prisoners, CCTV cameras were covered by towels and he taught in the classroom alone with no officer or security person present at any time.
John said: “I taught a lot of LVF prisoners when I was there. One day an inmate produced a book in class by a journalist for the Independent during the Troubles, David McKittrick. He had interviewed me about Catholic education and there was a photograph of me in the book. I was alone in the classroom with the LVF, and they now knew my background. However, it never seemed to cause any problems.
“One time when I was showing them footage on the Palestine/Israeli crisis, the room was darkened to show the screen, and I fell asleep. One of the prisoners nudged me awake. When I told prison officers what happened they couldn't believe it. “Most of the prison officers never ventured near where I taught.
“Sure, when the republicans were digging the tunnel out of the Maze, there was an entire cell filled with muck to the very top. How can anyone say an officer checked that cell?
“While I was teaching there, it was obvious the prison officers did not run the prison and at times it was very scary in the Maze but I'm glad to say I got on well with all the prisoners.
“During my time teaching in the H blocks, I taught a lot of loyalists Irish. They would say to me ‘Well, why not — it’s our language too'.
“A senior UDA prisoner who went on to become a community worker, invited me to give several talks on the Famine and other moments of Irish history to a Protestant community group. When I went into his office, on his wall were his CCEA graded objectives in Irish.”
John’s unique experience led to a commission by the Director General of the Prison Service of a report on prison education, which found that a significant number of prisoners lacked the essential communication skills to cope with life, which sadly he said continues today. Leaving the inmates upon his retirement, John continued teaching part-time at Hydebank young offenders’ centre. John turns 70 at the end of this month when he embarks upon a grand tour of Ireland on his free senior citizens’ bus pass. “Nobody believes I'm going to do it, but I am. Just go around Ireland on my own for free on my bus pass. I can't wait.”